[Place your cursor at the end of this line for a link to hear "Country Roads." _]
Although my parents left with me when I was only one, I was born on November 22, 1963, at Princeton Memorial Hospital. Princeton is near the southern border with Bluefield, Virginia. We returned every year to visit the extended family, most of which have remained there (or nearby). Absurdly long car rides from Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania ensured that I got to know my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and the place my parents grew up.
They always knew they would leave, but I couldn't wait to go. Those trips--some of the best and worst times of my life--rolling across country in the Chevrolet station wagon with Mom and Dad, and two younger brothers, brought me to the home I never lived in. Over several days in the car we would count state lines, cows, license plates, freckles. We knew we were less than a day away when we began to bob over the rolling Appalachian mountains, progressively shaded blue-green layers fading into darkness. The Indian profile rock on Route 460 marked just one half hour until we would arrive at Granny and Paw Paw's where a welcoming party of a dozen would greet us with hugs and thick accents.
I knew that little house by heart. The square-yard metal heater grate in the kitchen, the tiny back bedroom stuffed with games and toys. Granny scurrying around the 1940s kitchen, magically issuing forth fifteen course meals that always included pot roast, pole beans, at least one Jello salad, stewed prunes stuffed with cream cheese, and heavenly fresh rolls. A sign in the dining room read, "Just one life, it will soon be past. Only what's done for Christ will last." After the meal, Paw Paw would relax in his recliner in front of the blaring television. Thirty-some Guideposts magazines grew yellow and curled in the corner of the only bathroom. An old-fashioned, claw foot tub provided an exotic way to clean up.
Memaw and Gramps's house on the other side of town held the allure of her painting studio, a ping pong table, a hand-painted "Low Bridge" sign above the basement steps, a screened-in back porch, the crab apple tree, "Frankie and Johnnie" on the piano, and "Coney Island Washboard" on the ukelele. The stern portrait of William Worth George, our Confederate soldier ancestor, loomed large.
No visit was complete without an overnight stay at Maw Maw Taylor's farm. A quarter Cherokee, my great grandmother wore her long, still-dark hair in braids wrapped around her head. I gathered fresh eggs from under the hens and she made them for me in rich home-churned butter. Her fried apple pies were legendary. She kept a giant garden and canned every year. If West Virginia is heaven, then home-canned pole beans are on God's plate. Maw Maw's feather beds and springy porch swings, not to mention the railroad whistle from the tracks out past her place, are also this side of paradise.
There were the cousins and neighborhood friends we saw once or twice a year. But most of all, there was the sense of belonging and coming home. My grandparents are long gone now, but Princeton remains. It has grown into a megaplex of chain restaurants and hotels. The old downtown--the center of the community when my parents were young--is slowly reincarnating into a few businesses and muralled public parks after dying a slow death as commerce migrated to the new highways.
A family reunion brought me back to town recently. I stay with my Uncle Joe and Aunt Elaine now, in their lovely, modern home. About sixty of the extended family turned out for the festivities on a Sunday afternoon. My cousins have their own families, with teenagers and toddlers.
The food covered four picnic tables, one for desserts alone. For five hours we ate, hugged, and talked. We reminisced about the past and updated each other on our lives, sharing stories and pictures on our phones. I had to ask about the names and relation of a few of those in attendance, especially the little children. Most I would know anywhere, even though they were a little heavier or grayer than the last time we met. I'm certain they thought the same of me.
I am grateful for my West Virginia heritage and family. I am grateful that my parents valued their original home enough to pass it on. Although my life now seems to be a million miles from those memories and that place, it never really leaves me. It's always here inside, part of the person I've become. The value of family, love of Spirit and country, and an appreciation for the long road some of us travel; are some of the lessons I've learned from going home. I'm fortunate to have a place where people love me unconditionally, simply because I am family.
"Country roads, take me home, to the place, I belong. West Virginia, mountain mama, take me home, country roads."